It's the end of another week of rumor, conjecture and speculation. The fantasy football rankings are up, so let the debates begin. This week the opinionated trio tackles the topics of backups, tight ends, emerging wideouts and the offseason changes of address.
No stone is left unturned as we devour every possible news report to give you the freshest takes. Here goes ...
Q: Who is the top backup running back?
I hear rumblings that Marshall Faulk's knee is not medically sound. I'm not trusting Faulk this season, regardless. My gut says Faulk misses at least six games, making rookie Steven Jackson the top RB backup to land on Draft Day. This could very well be Faulk's swan song with the Rams.
Forget about drafting Larry Johnson or Willis McGahee and praying for injury or ineffectiveness. Take a guy who has value even if the depth chart never flips all season. Whoever loses out on Atlanta's starting job will retain considerable fantasy value. T.J. Duckett scored touchdowns in seven straight weeks last year beginning with Week 9. He did so while averaging only slightly more than 10 carries per game. Back from a foot injury, Warrick Dunn currently sits atop the depth chart. Even if he loses out, his versatility as a pass catcher in the West Coast offense will keep him on the fantasy radar.
The Super Bowl run by the Carolina Panthers introduced the world (OK, non-Pac-10 fans) to the speedster DeShaun Foster. This guy's body has been put through a blender, and he just keeps going. John Fox had to have been impressed with his 4.7 rushing average in the playoffs. Look for Foster's production to rise in '04 to complement Stephen Davis and keep him healthy. Davis has missed portions of virtually every season in his career, and the Foster figures to see regular work.
Foster can catch the ball out of the backfield (26 catches for an average of eight yards), so his inclusion in the game plan will help mitigate the concerns that Carolina's offense will be stymied. I see 10-12 carries each week with a couple of weeks of full-time duty in the cards for Foster.
Q: Who is the top backup QB that you need to nab?
With a hellacious schedule on tap for Cincinnati, Carson Palmer is going to get some seriously heated on-the-job training. Probably too hot for the untested sophomore to handle. I suspect the Bengals will turn to Jon Kitna (26 TD passes and 3,591 passing yards in '03) before the season gets away from them, which could be early October.
It frightens me to say this, but the Bengals feel that their time is now. Carson Palmer isn't taking the helm of a rebuilding team, he's quarterbacking a team that expects to make a run at the playoffs. Jon Kitna paid the price for a subpar final four weeks, but he still had a monster fantasy year. Look around the league, and you'll see a lot of rookie backups or veterans grabbing the clipboard for a new team. With Kitna you have a proven performer who already knows his system.
Jon Kitna is the layup in playing word association with this question, but I'm heading East to tab Kurt Warner as "that guy." Tom Coughlin never has been compared to Job, and given the feeding frenzy in New York after last season's atrocities (4-12 overall, 1-5 in the NFC East), Eli Manning will need to dominate in training camp. Warner has a bigger arm than Manning, has seen and done it all and stands ready to command this offense.
Q: Who will be the breakout wide receiver for 2004?
I'll place my bottom dollar on Justin McCareins. At 6-foot-2, he'll stand out for the ultra-accurate Chad Pennington in the red zone. Santana Moss may get more receptions and yards, but McCareins should lead the Jets' receiving corps in touchdowns. In a part-time role for Tennessee last season, McCareins had seven TDs, despite only 47 catches. He's a good bet to push 10 scores in '04.
If Joey Harrington can make even modest strides this year, Charles Rogers should have a monster sophomore season. Before having his 2003 season cut short by injury, Rogers had established a pace for 70 receptions, 700-plus yards and nine touchdowns. He showed flash (touchdowns on his first two receptions) and consistency (at least four receptions in each of his first five games) as a rookie.
History shows that the third season is when wideouts emerge. Look to Plaxico Burress in 2002 or Santana Moss in 2003. With Javon Walker and Donte Stallworth already on everybody's radar, I'm going to run with Andre' Davis of the Cleveland Browns. He's already made his mark in the end zone, catching 11 TDs in his first two seasons, but he was only fourth on the team in receptions.
Kellen Winslow will receive a lot of attention from defensive coordinators, freeing Jeff Garcia to actually look to his receivers instead of running backs. Davis stands as the big-play guy in this offense.
Alge Crumpler won't be asked to do much blocking this season, which means he'll be in the top 5 mix at TE, but I'll give the No. 3 nod to the rookie, Kellen Winslow. You know that Cleveland was jonesing to land this guy when they gave up a second-round pick just to move up one spot in the draft to ensure drafting him. The Browns have a woeful receiving corps, making Winslow the team's most skilled receiver from the get-go. Don't be surprised if he leads his team in receptions and receiving TDs.
After Gonzalez and Heap, there are a bunch of guys who can help you keep up with the rest of the league's production at tight end and one potential difference-maker. Kellen Winslow has talent. He has a quarterback who loves to throw to outlet receivers. He has a team that is looking for him to produce from Week 1. He's projected right where he should be – in the sixth round as the final offensive piece to your lineup.
The Falcons have assembled talent and speed at wide receiver to complement overachiever Brian Finneran in the form of Peerless Price, Dez White and Michael Jenkins. The fly patterns will soften the middle of the field for former North Carolina Tar Heels star Alge Crumpler and he's invaluable in the red zone. Crumpler finished 2003 with 44 catches and 550 receiving yards, despite the Falcons' reliance on Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner. I'm looking for 600 receiving yards but a robust 7 TDs.
Q: Which player's change of address will have the biggest fantasy impact in 2004?
Clinton Portis will be huge for Washington, but he was already a nation-wide performer in Denver, so his impact remains unchanged. That being the case, I'll go with Corey Dillon's move from Cincy to New England as having the most positive impact on his value. The Patriots' grind-it-out style will align perfectly with Dillon's skills. Basically, Dillon will give New England what it always hoped Antowain Smith would be: a workhorse, move-the-chains back capable of handling a ton of carries. If Dillon doesn't finish with at least 1,250 rushing yards and 10 TDs, I'll be surprised.
Pittsburgh is dying to return to its ball-control days. The Steelers desperately need to keep their inexperienced secondary off the field and minimize the downfield mistakes of quarterback Tommy Maddox. Enter Duce Staley – a possession back capable of banging out 800 yards and catching 60 passes. Sure, he'll lose some touches and touchdowns to Jerome Bettis just like he did as part of the backfield committee in Philly, but between catching the ball and keeping the chains moving, he'll provide plenty of value for a fifth- or sixth-round pick.
I'm going to go with a guy who has been all but forgotten in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football drafts out of the gate: Charlie Garner (11th round selection on average). His numbers were down due to an absurd platoon system employed by then-Oakland head coach Bill Callahan in 2003. Garner again changes residences to realign himself with Jon Gruden this year and figures to be a focal point of the offense. Look for a return to 70 receptions, 1,000 yards rushing and a push back to double-digit TDs.
Got a particular player or topic that you want an opinion on? Use the link to the feedback form below to send your thoughts and comments along to the trio for a future Fantasy Forum column. Happy drafting!
- Brandon Funston